David S. Sori­ano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wiki­me­dia Commons

Want­ed: Detective.

Loca­tion: Jerusalem.

Gen­der: Female.

Required skills: Must think out­side the box, like a stranger in a strange land.

To be a detec­tive requires play­ing the role of a for­eign­er in a new coun­try. Effec­tive sleuths must notice anom­alies, incon­sis­ten­cies, square pegs in round holes, and peo­ple and things out of place. They need to behave as though they are from anoth­er plan­et — like they are per­pet­u­al out­siders, delib­er­ate­ly off-balance.

The detec­tive of my new mys­tery series, Maya Rimon, is an intel­li­gence agent in the Ser­vice, and quite the out­sider in Israeli soci­ety: she is not only a detec­tive, but also a woman doing what is usu­al­ly a man’s job. I, too, am an out­sider in Israel. Although I’ve trav­eled there fif­teen times, most­ly for busi­ness, I’ve nev­er lived in the coun­try for any extend­ed peri­od. Most of my trips have been intense and short, cen­tered around the Jerusalem Inter­na­tion­al Book Fair, fam­i­ly vis­its, or teach­ing. I still can’t find my way around Jerusalem with­out a map or GPS, and there are hun­dreds of sites in the city in which I haven’t set foot.

As I worked on the first book in The Jerusalem Mys­ter­ies series, The Dead­ly Scrolls, and then on its sequel, The Hye­na Mur­ders, both pub­lished in 2022, I came to rec­og­nize the advan­tages of writ­ing as an out­sider, who might see things that insid­ers miss. For exam­ple, I’ve noticed that Israeli Jews approach Jew­ish­ness dif­fer­ent­ly than Amer­i­can Jews. Because Jews make up the reli­gious major­i­ty in Israel, Jew­ish” is not the defin­ing fea­ture of their iden­ti­ty. Rather, they see each oth­er through an eth­nic (Ashke­nazi, Sephar­di, Mizrachi, Ethiopi­an), reli­gious (hare­di, mod­ern Ortho­dox, sec­u­lar, non-Jew­ish), or nation­al (Israeli, Russ­ian, Pales­tin­ian, African) lens, just to name a few. To regard a fel­low Jew in Israel first and fore­most as Jew­ish,” I’ve learned, is not nuanced enough. Cer­tain­ly not for Maya Rimon.

Free­ing my char­ac­ters of the weighty bag­gage of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish immi­grant expe­ri­ence and the imme­di­ate specter of West­ern anti­semitism has allowed them to face oth­er neme­ses in my nov­els: the fear of a fifth col­umn with­in the state, internecine ten­sions among dif­fer­ent kinds of Jews, inevitable reli­gious hier­ar­chies, eth­no­cen­trism and xeno­pho­bia, and ordi­nary con­flicts that afflict us as human beings, born out of jeal­ousy, pas­sion, prej­u­dice, and pride. It should not be sur­pris­ing that these very same neme­ses faced the Jew­ish peo­ple mil­len­nia ago, when they were sov­er­eign in their own land.

David Ben-Guri­on once expressed the hope that Israel would one day be a nation like all oth­er nations. But he also declared that Israel would remain dif­fer­ent from those nations in its spir­i­tu­al and moral upright­ness. After almost sev­en­ty-five years of inde­pen­dence, we have come to see that Ben-Gurion’s first aspi­ra­tion for the new state — to be like all oth­er nations — has indeed come to pass. As for the sec­ond hope, the jury is hung, per­haps indefinitely.

In set­ting my mys­tery series in Israel, I have tried to explore how Ben-Gurion’s twin vision — of excep­tion­al­ism and uni­ver­sal­ism — plays out with­in the con­ven­tions of the mys­tery genre. Is Maya Rimon a spy like all oth­er spies? Does mur­der look dif­fer­ent when viewed with­in an Israeli con­text? What about romance? Are the Jerusalem Mys­ter­ies who­dun­nits like any oth­er — or do they speak with an Israeli accent?

Ellen Frankel served for 18 years as Edi­tor in Chief of JPS. She received a Ph.D. in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Prince­ton She has pub­lished eleven books, most notably The Five Books of Miri­am. She has also writ­ten libret­tos for cham­ber pieces and two operas. She has trav­eled wide­ly as a Jew­ish sto­ry­teller. The Dead­ly Scrolls is her first mystery.